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Ten to 15 years ago, business casual meant wearing jeans or more relaxed apparel on Fridays. These days, it is increasingly the weekday standard of the business world.

But in some fields, it presents a quandary. If appearance can play a large role in success, as various studies have shown, how do you balance the new freedom of the workplace with the danger of giving the wrong impression?

Or as Kingston, Ont.-based image consultant Catherine Bell puts it: "When we move down the ladder of formality on clothes, how do we still maintain a look of quality that says, 'I'm a professional'?"

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Judgments are made about our abilities within seconds of meeting somebody new. That bothers Ms. Bell, as there is so much more to people than their appearance, but she believes the only sensible approach is to determine what it is about yourself you wish to convey and find the clothes to express that image, consistent with the work environment in which you operate.

Want to look approachable? Want to look powerful? "The outward packaging in a brand often tells us about what is inside," she noted in an interview. "It's discouraging when I see people with all sorts of skills who want to move ahead but they are undermining themselves with their appearance."

Some people view such efforts as posturing, insisting that changing their style would mean not being authentic. But she says you need to be aware of the business environment in which you work and also the way you want to come across.

Five factors affect the perceived formality or informality of your clothing and can help you determine where you want to be on what she calls "the ladder of formality."

1. Layers

The greater number of pieces you wear at one time, the more formal you will appear. A suit is at the top of the ladder, while a shirt and pants or blouse and a skirt convey less formality.

2. Colour

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The darker your clothes, the more powerful your look. That is underlined when combined with contrasting colours, such as a navy suit with a white shirt. Muted, traditional tones such as black, navy and grey are more formal than brighter colours.

3. Fabric

The smoother and plainer the fabric, the more formality is suggests. So woven fabrics are further up the ladder than knits, and fine knits make you look dressier than textured ones. "Wools, silks and micro fibres are more polished than linens, cottons and blends, unless they are heavily textured. Florals and paisleys will make you more approachable, while fabrics that shine or cling are at the bottom of the professional scale," Ms. Bell explains in her new book, Empower Your Presence.

4. Tailoring

The more tailored your clothing, the more formality you signal, and the more presence you will have. A soft, unlined jacket is not as strong as one with lining, shoulder pads and interfacing. A long-sleeved garment is more formal than a short-sleeved. A 1993 study found that a woman wearing a jacket was perceived as having more expert and legitimate power than a woman not wearing a jacket.

5. Accessories

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Finer accessories such as shoes with thin soles, gold or silver jewellery, and leather portfolios are more formal than heavier pieces in textured materials. You want the formality level of your accessories to match that of your clothes.

Ms. Bell deconstructs the array of business casual we encounter into three types: tailored business casual, smart business casual, and relaxed business casual.

Managers who normally wear professional attire might relax their look by mixing a tailored jacket with a contrasting pair of pants. At the other end of the scale – in information technology, the arts, and skilled trades, for example – T-shirts are common, with jeans, sleeveless tops and even shorts making an appearance in warmer weather.

You also can convey your style by choosing between classic, dramatic, romantic and natural garb. But again, Ms. Bell stresses that it must fit your work. People expect bankers who handle their money to be more formally attired.

It need not blow your budget to overhaul your wardrobe. Nine pieces of co-ordinated clothing can give a man or woman 20 separate outfits, which essentially covers a month of work, she said. The key is to limit the colours so that each piece fits with the others.

"People rush in and buy something on sale at the end of the season, something that doesn't fit their wardrobe or their colour. It's a waste of money," she said in the interview. It's easier for men to co-ordinate their clothing although they, too, must be careful – a suit jacket cannot be turned into a blazer, for example, to go with a different pair of pants.

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One study found that men wearing custom-made rather than off-the-rack suits (not a huge difference, you might think) were rated higher for confidence, success, trustworthiness, salary level and flexibility. Women in a suit with a skirt rather than pants were rated higher for confidence, salary and flexibility.

In short, Ms. Bell said, "Don't underestimate the power of image and clothes to open doors."

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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